My journey across a desert of destruction

He left his job in Poole, Dorset, to join peace protesters in Baghdad, but last Thursday Phil Sands, 25, was declared a security risk and ordered to leave Iraq. This is his diary
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sunday 23 March

Sunday 23 March

It was broad daylight, about 3pm, and you could hear the engines of B-52 bombers over the city.

I bought some vegetables and carried on walking down the main road leading out of Karrada, a heavily bombed district of Baghdad.

The air raid siren went as I passed the barber shop, run by a Palestinian man who always tries to give me a haircut but ends up giving me tea instead. Everyone ignored the siren, and I did too, sitting in the street of this war zone, drinking an Iranian bottle of Pepsi and eating a sandwich.

With bombs still landing to the south of the city, I carried my vegetables past a sandbagged police outpost, busy with soldiers. They waved and smiled, and told me "welcome habebee". They said it again, "welcome dearest", when I told them I was from England.

Monday 24 March

The days are dark now, heavy from the oil-screen fires. No one much talks about the bombings any more.

With the earth shaking with explosives, we walked along the street, past the gun emplacements and the friendly Iraqi soldiers, who may fight and die outside our home in the ditches they are digging.

I sat up into the early hours with an Iraqi who explained something none of us knew. Close to the Doura oil refinery, and 200m from our house, is an arms factory.

The B-52s sound as if they are everywhere, always. Our "pro-Saddam" minders watch the news and cheer the perpetual victory of their forces over the Americans.

Tuesday 25 March

The first attack started at about 2am. For the rest of the night, and all Tuesday, I lay feverish in bed, too sick to move. I drifted in and out of sleep, to the sound of bombs, the most intensive attack yet.

Outside the sky was yellow, then dark. Filthy black rain fell from the filthy black sky. It was a foul 24 hours for me. The only light spot was when Alul, a Turkish shield, brought me warm milk, an impossible commodity in Iraq.

Wednesday 26 March

We watched as one of our minders used our emergency drinking water to wash his bus. Faith, a quiet, dignified shield from America, was mute with outrage.

Then I was told to report to the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad. Al-Hashimi himself had ordered I meet him.

Jurgen, an excellent shield from Germany, and another shield – a Catalonian revolutionary with a flak jacket and 24-hour whisky habit – were also summoned.

Al-Hashimi runs the Organisation of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, the Iraqi group responsible for bringing in the human shields and deploying them to possible bomb targets.

He's an important man, powerful enough for the sensible to fear and loathe. I try to avoid him, but one of our minders from the Ministry of Tourism made it clear I must go this time. He escorted us to Al-Hashimi's lair, on the 17th floor of the Palestine.

We left five minutes later having been expelled from the country as a "security risk".

The Catalonian volunteered to stay and fight the Americans with Saddam's army, an offer that was politely refused. Al-Hashimi thanked us for our "noble and courageous" presence and then threw us out. It was 1pm and he wanted us out at 2pm.

The Iraqis couldn't organise transport out, so we had a day's reprieve. I said goodbyes, tearless but hurtful. Friends I have lived through war with, friends who may yet not live through the war.

Thursday 27 March

No electricity; 4am and I hear a helicopter, far away on the wind. It stopped me sleeping, makes me scared. I stood on the roof and listened; utter black apart from the glow of fire from the refinery. One of the minders appeared, very unhappy at me being alone. He told me to go downstairs.

I ate my last breakfast with the friends I must leave; some new shields, one a Muslim man in a mottled-green combat jacket. He didn't say much and neither did I. I no longer gave a damn about fighters coming in as human shields – ruining the whole peaceful idea and risking everyone's safety – because it was so typical of how things get messed up and crazy.

There will be four shields left at the refinery, just four. Before the bombing, there had been about 30. Lots of life and arguments.

Cihan, 25-year-old Kurdish musician, and Alul, 21-year-old Turkish student and a fine singer, are both funny and kind. There is Osama, an Iraqi Australian, caught in a permanent state of wide-eyed fear because his family live close to the refinery. And there is Faith. She's given up everything to be in Iraq and may never be allowed home. Cihan calls her "our mother". She cried as we said goodbye. I think I'll never see her again.

There was bright sunshine as we drove off. No one knows if the road to Syria is open, if Syria will let us in, or if we will be attacked on the way.

For endless hours we drove past machine gun posts and fighters in headscarves at checkpoints. Through the desert, past destroyed civilian buses, wrecked bridges, AA guns, pick-up trucks. A destroyed Red Crescent ambulance. Recent horrors.

We were at the border before dark. A cursory passport check by a man eating his dinner. Another asked if I was British and smiled, pulling his finger across his throat when I said yes.

Friday 28 March

Sorrowful and lonely in Damascus. No planes, no bombing. Instead, mobile phones, new cars, women, Benetton adverts and recycling bins. Nothing seems real.

I walked around, not knowing what to do, wishing only to be in Baghdad. With my friends, for the hell and high water still to come.